Gee’s bend, quilting over generations

Rita Mae Pettway, Housetop (fractured medallion variation), 1977, corduroy, 80 x 76 inches (Virginia Museum of Fine Art). A conversation with Valerie Cassell Oliver, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and Beth Harris.

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Gee's Bend Quilt

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Key points

  • Black women in Gee’s Bend, Alabama have been making quilts from the remnants of discarded fabrics since the 19th century. Patterns and techniques have been passed down from generation to generation, from a time when the women were enslaved laborers producing the quilts out of necessity for domestic use up to today when the quilts are purchased and preserved as valuable works of art.
  • The name Pettway is one of the most associated with the quilters of Gee’s Bend, tracing back to the surname of the owner of a major plantation in the area. Rita Mae Pettway learned quilting from her grandmother, Annie E. Pettway. Quilts made by both women, and other women in their family, are now held in major museum collections.
  • The patterns on Gee’s Bend quilts display an aesthetic richness that draws on influences from West Africa, Indigenous America, and Europe. The results, however, have an improvisational and spiritual quality that is uniquely American, the equivalent in visual art to the place of Jazz in music. The irregularity and asymmetry of the quilts create a distinct visual rhythm though the quilters have not received academic training in visual art.
  • In the mid-1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights era, the women of Gee’s Bend formed the Freedom Quilting Bee Cooperative. By promoting their quilts and related skills, they hoped to create jobs and economic growth for the region. A contract with Sears, Roebuck, and Company in the early 1970s for the production of corduroy pillow covers brought much needed income as well as fabric fragments that were used to make quilts like Housetop (fractured medallion variation).

Go deeper

Read about the acquisition of a group of Gee’s Bend quilts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Learn more about the history and makers of Gee’s Bend quilts from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

Discover more about Gee’s Bend from the Library of Congress

More to think about

In the history of Euro-American art, there has often been an emphasis on appreciating the degree to which an artist achieves perfection in a technique, such as precise brushstrokes, compositional symmetry, or overall harmony in their work. In the case of Gee’s Bend quilts, however, we are reminded that cultural and artistic value can also be found in the disruption of such harmony, in the irregularity or asymmetry of an artwork. Look again at this quilt (and others from Gee’s Bend). How does irregularity or “imperfection” enrich the visual experience of the work? Do you know of other contexts where irregularity or imperfection are prized? 

Artworks that come from a legacy of enslavement are more frequently being collected and displayed in art museums today (e.g. the vessels of David Drake). Recognizing that each object has its own unique history and value, what core ideas or questions do you think are most important for museum visitors to reflect on when engaging with artworks of this sort? 

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.